Friday, September 18, 2015

Medieval, Not Med-Evil

On many occasions, I've had to defend medieval music as a topic on which time is well spent in music history curricula. Even beloved colleagues in performance have questioned the necessity of learning ‘dead’ repertoire that most of their students will never perform or interact with in a meaningful way. This is especially true of chant, that dustiest of dusty repertoires, inhabitant of music history's grungiest dustbins. 

These are legitimate questions, but they ignore the value of muddling about in the monophonic, and more importantly, in a tradition that is primarily oral—a far cry from the land of "deified composers" and "fetishized scores" that James Parakilas so aptly identifies in his essay, "Texts, Contexts, and Non-Texts in Music History Pedagogy." The question of what you can say or write about a single line of music is not inconsequential. It is hard, as my students quickly discover. Stripping away several centuries of musical knowledge is no easy task and requires a type of historical imagination with which they seldom engage. It is easy enough to picture Schubert at the piano during one of his famous soirées, making music with his friends, embodying the spirit of Romantic community, blissfully unaware that his music will be deployed on the battleground of style periods a century later. Somewhat less inspiring to the typical undergraduate is the anonymous-faced monk, cloistered away in the scriptorium, copying tunes that are but one version of a song born long before that moment.

But those monks are not so far removed from the beatified Mahler symphony as one might think. The copying down of those neumes led to various notational systems, including that of Guido d’Arezzo, who is responsible--at least in part--for “one of the simplest but most radical breakthroughs in the history of writing music,” as Tom Kelly reminds us. At this juncture, notation became not just a simple mnemonic device, but “made it possible to sing a song you have never heard before” (Kelly, 62). That distinction is a game-changer, and hardly something to be glossed over. Moreover, as David Hiley muses in his primer on Gregorian chant, pitch-accurate notation likely reflects the surge in new music in the eleventh century, when “many new melodies of non-traditional melodic character were composed” (Hiley, 200).  The real take-away here is that history repeats itself and what is distant and dusty is also a mirror for our own times. Without early notation might we imagine a Chopin-less world, a Beethoven-less world…the entirety of the Western canon at whose altar we worship having never been? Would music have ceased to exist? No, of course not--and that is exactly the point. The graphic notation of Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and others, is the progeny of that new music of the eleventh century. (For a convincing argument for the direct influence of neumatic notation on Earle Brown’s work, see Alden, below). I don’t make claims of evolutionary progress here, but to deny the significance of early music and notation is akin to denying a relationship between primates and homo sapiens.  Chant is usually the first repertoire to be sent to the firing squad of curricular decision-making, ironically defended by shaky Darwineqsque arguments of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Shall we also remove “H. erectus” from our study of human development? After all, anatomy and science focus on Homo sapiens. (For that matter, does that make the recent discovery of the species Homo naledi irrelevant?)

But perhaps the historical argument is shouting into an abyss—if one is not convinced of history’s import in the first place, a distinction between notated v. orally transmitted music is probably not crucial. But what should be crucial to performers--and here is where the argument might be more relevant even to those who eschew history--is that much of the essence of chant as a practice is the basis for the music of modern times. There seems to be an increasing acceptance of "improvisation" as a valued contribution from the jazz world (Yale notwithstanding, as Alex Ross reports), yet chant, which one could argue constitutes improvisation before improvising was cool, is rarely mentioned in the same context. Improvisation isn’t a new idea—it was there first before the systems and the rules. How much less daunting might it be to understand that fact before dropping students into Lydian chromatic theory, chord structures, or a Schenkerian Ursatz? If we subscribe to a chronological approach to teaching music history (as most departments still do), why not get students saturated in the ability to understand that modern performance—a composite of artistic expression, deportment, and polish—grew out of an innate expression of human culture? In this way, chant is of cosmogonic importance in understanding music that was not conceived or learned originally by score.  Why not steep ourselves in repertoire that was improvised, not “performed,” and that was “composed,” but not fixed?

In my medieval music course (and I am fortunate to teach at a place with a five-semester undergraduate music history sequence), I ask my students to listen to a monophonic Alleluia, and then ask the intentionally vague question, "what can you tell me about this?" The initial response is "not much," but when pressed, out come timid comments about contour, key v. mode, speech-rhythms, melismas, text, and plentiful other observations and contextual hypotheses that seem to rise out of the anxiety of having nowhere to run. When faced with the absence of dense polyphony, augmented chords to identify, and instrumentation to critique, there is an invitation to investigate context, to understand that chant is part of a family of musical traditions--most of them popular--where authorship is ambiguous at best, and there are blurred lines between intertextuality, plagiarism, and musical borrowing. As Parakilas observes, one need look no further than a radio station to see this legacy play out in our urban soundscapes.

I’d like to return briefly to my embedded quip above about recent events at Yale and decisions about jazz in the curriculum. While I don’t wish to focus upon the place of jazz in music curricula, conductor Michael Lewanski’s thoughts on the matter are relevant to this discussion. He offered the following in a profoundly good essay:

The notion of “training people in the Western canon and in new music” is flawed, first of all, because it assumes that the Western canon is a fixed, reified thing that doesn’t change, and, secondly, that new music is separate from it (whatever “it” is).”

Like jazz, medieval music is also increasingly getting short shrift despite its inarguable connection to the so-called “canon.” In fact, Lewanski’s entire article about jazz and new music parallels the argument that I am making. He continues:

“To pretend that these [canonical] pieces are deserving of being played because there is something inherently, unquestionably cool about them is the problem.  The reason they are important is the opposite: it is because they have a reception history, a tradition of people thinking about, feeling, playing, interrogating, fighting, reacting against them; and we are among those people.”

[Incidentally,  Lewanski’s postscript addressing canons and performing musicians is also a worthwhile read. ]

Curricular priorities are based on a lot of assumptions, some of which are so deeply embedded in institutional tradition that all the backhoes of practical evidence to the contrary can’t dislodge them. That said, it is time for a different discussion about “relevance” when it comes to history. And here I deliberately leave off “music” because this is ultimately not a discussion about chant and its importance. Instead, it is a plea for understanding and internalizing a truth that “old” and “new” are no longer terms to mark relative moments in time, but instead qualitative and often dismissive words that do art a terrible injustice. If we can recapture the newness of what is “old,” and the timelessness of what is “new,” I think that makes us better students, better educators, and dare I say it—better homo sapiens.


Alden, Jane. “From Neume to Folio: Medieval Influences on Earle Brown’s Graphic Notation.” Contemporary Music Review 26:3 (2007): 315-332.

Hiley, David. Gregorian Chant. Cambridge Introductions to Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Kelly, Thomas Forrest. Capturing Music: The Story of Notation.  New York: W.W. Norton,  2015.

Lewanski, Michael. “Education, Jazz, Canons.” August 30, 2015.

Lewanski, Michael. “Education, Jazz, Canons: A Theoretical and Practical Postscript.” September 7, 2015.

Parakilas, James.  “Texts, Contexts, and Non-Texts in Music History Pedagogy.” In Vitalizing Music History Teaching, 45-58. Edited by James R. Briscoe.  Monographs and Bibliographies in American Music, No. 20. New York: Pendragon Press, 2010.

Ross, Alex. “God and Jazz at Yale.”  August 29, 2015. (Accessed August 31, 2015)

"Statue of Guido of Arezzo". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - 

Yong, Ed. “6 Tiny Cavers, 15 Odd Skeletons, and 1 Amazing New Species of Ancient Human” The Atlantic. Sept 10, 2015.
 (Accessed Sept 13, 2015)

With many thanks to those who read this post in draft form!

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Experiments: Writing to Teach

The title of this post tips its hat to the late William Zinsser's influential book, Writing to Learn, a tome that helped instill of a love of writing and learning in me at an impressionable age. Along with the work of Peter Elbow and the wonderful experiences I had at the Bard Institute of Writing and Thinking in 2012, Zinsser's ideas have changed the way I approach my writing--or, to be more honest--try to approach. Freewriting, too, has become central to most of my teaching, and I hope to recharge this blog with posts about writing in the music history classroom, among other topics.

As anyone who works with freewriting knows, one of the core dictums is that the professor should always write with the class. I admit that I sometimes forget to do this, my mind otherwise preoccupied with the best way to manage the ensuing discussion. I always feel guilty when I forget to write with my students because then it feels like I've assigned a chore, rather than an activity. That's not to say I have to participate in every in-class activity, but I think cooperative engagement is generally the best pedagogical model for my classes.

I've re-conceptualized my seminars over the years, and I'm particularly excited about my upcoming Orpheus and Music seminar this term. It is an expansion of a seven-week course that I have taught both at the conservatory and as a community programs course.  While having fourteen weeks does allow us the chance to cover more repertoire, I've decided to keep the core repertoire from the shorter version of the course and to spend the extra time creating a hybrid teacherless writing class instead.

Peter Elbow's Writing without Teachers presents a model that, in its purest form, is not logistically possible within the confines of most curricula—an ideal teacherless writing group of eight people requires 2 to 2 ½ hours per week (Elbow, 84). Short class periods and departmental expectations hamper the instructor’s ability to devote hours to peer responding, particularly when integrated into a subject matter that is not strictly Composition/Rhetoric.  That said, it does provide a worthwhile philosophical approach that can easily be applied to courses in a variety of ways.  I've decided to integrate more peer-responding—as opposed to "peer-editing”--into my graduate seminars. Students will have several opportunities to freewrite and discuss in-class the different stages of their term papers. I've found, as I'm sure many professors do, that "choosing the topic" can be the most laborious aspect of a term paper. I do not give exacting prompts for graduate seminars because I want them to be intellectually curious enough to pick a topic that actually interests them. For many students, however, being confronted with an übertopic like "Orpheus and Music" and then being asked to come up with a research proposal in a few weeks time is a daunting task. This is absolutely understandable. So I've decided to bring in "teacherless" peer writing groups from the initial stages of the project--starting with determining a topic all the way through to the final draft stages.

This is all an extension of peer-review/peer-responding activities I have integrated into my courses throughout my teaching career. But this year brings a new twist: I'm going to write a seminar paper with my students. Essentially, I'm going to join their "teacherless" writing groups. I have a head start on my proposal, but I'll present it to them for their feedback, bring in my drafts, etc. The obvious advantage of this is that I will get some writing done. I hadn't planned on doing any professional work with "Orpheus and music," but if I'm going to spend hours upon hours prepping the material for the seminar, why not turn it into a paper? I realize this is not a revolutionary idea, but it is certainly the first time I've decided to work with my seminar in this way. My hope is that it will reinforce writing and research as process—a means, not just an end. The students will receive a grade for the proposal, annotated bibliography, and the final paper, but are also responsible for two separate "draft sessions" wherein they bring in a two-page portion (first session) and then a five-page portion (second session) to share in their peer-responding groups. I will be there too, sitting anxiously among them--sharing, reading, writing, learning, and teaching.

Stay tuned!


Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Zinsser, William. Writing to Learn. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Indeterminacy in the Classroom

 As much as I might like to post about indeterminate processes in pedagogy, this piece is quite literally about John Cage's Indeterminacy in the classroom. I find that this is a wonderful opportunity to explore Cage's indeterminate methods in a very hands-on way. We took liberties, certainly, but liberties that align with Cage's own thinking (at least that is my hope).

For this year's Cage seminar, we used the Peters performance edition of the work, and selected the cards to be used by chance procedures (outlined below). We "rehearsed" once, and established a better flow the second time through. While some might argue that rehearsal nullifies the spontaneity of the piece via chance procedures, I would say that it honors the integrity of the work as a performance piece. Rather than compromise the work, using 12 people instead of one--all of whom are reading someone else's story--renders an "arrangement" of the piece that I think is most effective.

We chose 12 cards (from the "score")--partially due to time constraints--so that we could focus on the process rather than the content. The 90 score cards were kept in order per the instructions/suggestions of the score. The first student used score card #1, and then picked an additional card from a deck of cards. The number on the playing card determined how many score cards would be skipped in order to select one for the next student. That student then picked a playing card, and the process continued until we had 12 cards.

We opted for accompaniment in the form of two to three iPhones on shuffle. Each student had an iPhone or other smart phone with a stop watch function to monitor the time. Only one of the selected score cards was a so-called "attacca" card (meaning its story was a continuation from another card), so Carolyn chose to adjust her card's opening text for clarification by changing "we" to "David Tudor and I". Other performance aspects were followed as closely as possible, most notably trying to keep each card to a minute and to interpret brackets as ten seconds worth of text. Cage's own pronunciation keys proved useful (e.g. "Gnostic" with a hard g).

While we did videotape the realization, the audio by itself is much more effective. Many thanks go to my student Ryan Fossier for extracting the audio and putting it on Soundcloud. We were not able to provide amplification, but strove to "avoid audible strain." I've included the link below for your enjoyment.

MU 552: John Cage Seminar at The Boston Conservatory performs John Cage's Indeterminacy

Many thanks to the students of my Spring 2015 Cage seminar at The Boston Conservatory for their fine work on this project: Michael Bennett, Christina Cheon, Daniel DeSimone, Ryan Fossier, Eri Isomura, Carolyn McCrone, Aaron Newell, Lucian Nicolescu, David Vess, NianShee Yon, Lin Zhang, and Hanhan Zhu.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Professional Musicians and Social Networking

Last week, my "Communicating About Music" class discussed the ways performers might use social media to promote themselves and build relationships. I surveyed both sections of the class and discovered a few trends in how these graduate students use and understand the major social networking platforms.

1. Dedicated professional Facebook pages are less popular among students this year than last year.
2. most of the students seemed unaware of how to use " targeted lists" on Facebook
3. Many of the students saw Twitter as irrelevant or redundant with Facebook, although felt that hashtags were better implemented on Twitter.
4. Instagram is useful for facets of performing that are better expressed visually.

Very few of them mentioned blogging, yet most of them included it as part of their social networking plan in their mock grant proposals two weeks ago. I will not address blogging in this particular post. We also discussed LinkedIn, and various crowdfunding sites, all of which I may address in a future post.

I'm not pointing at the social networking sky and predicting its fall based upon two classes, but I do wonder if we have hit a saturation point--at least as far as professional networking is concerned.  I'd like to take each of the observations above and muse upon them briefly.

1. Dedicated Professional Facebook pages

Most of the students seemed to feel that unless one is an established performer or ensemble, dedicated Facebook pages seemed overly pretentious. One drawback is that friends and family may feel obligated to "like" and "follow," so your number of "likes" isn't really an indication of your potential audience. The benefits of having a page are rather obvious, but the biggest deterrent seemed to be the "self-promotion" aspect.  That's rather interesting, but not uncommon among students--many of whom make their livings gigging and performing, but don't yet see themselves as career professionals. I expressed a preference for professional pages when it comes to ensembles as I do not like to receive "friend requests" from entities (as opposed to individuals). As an alternative, we discussed:

2. Facebook audience lists

Recognizing that one's Facebook audience is not monolithic and that everyone is there for different reasons, the use of targeted lists is (to my mind, at least), one of the best and most helpful features of Facebook. I have about 10-15 lists, 5 of which I use most often. It was surprising to me how few of them post updates to select audiences. One real benefit of using a targeted list for professional activities is that the responses/comments are likely to be more relevant. It narrows the network in beneficial ways. Likewise, it can simultaneously foster more intimacy with audiences and professional distance. Beth Kanter and Allison Fine cite fear of showing one's "human side" as a fear that stops non-profits from using social media. (1)  And I think that's the part that is scary--the "social" aspect. How do you create a relationship with unknowns (and not simply broadcast information)? This is a mode of communication that is distinctive to our Internet culture. Representing yourself online is not only a skill, it is a challenge. But it can (and should) force us to prioritize what is important in a piece of communication. There are two questions with every post:
 1) Have I effectively communicated information? 2) What does this post "say" about me and how does it contribute to the composite image of me formed by my audience?

3. Twitter vs. Facebook

Twitter's value does lie in its brevity. Many of my students felt that Twitter was an effective supplement to a social networking arsenal because it could be used for event reminders and other announcements that did not require a lot of information. For me, I find this is true. I follow 1,974 people--I'm much less likely to respond to clickbait from my Twitter feed than I am on Facebook. I see Twitter as a stream of tiny hooks, all targeted toward specific fish. The difference is that you have less an idea of what's available to catch than you do on Facebook. But as a early-career performer, effective use of Twitter requires reciprocity and consistency. If it is used just to post upcoming concerts and the like, the full value of the platform is not being realized. Hashtags can be an effective way to enlarge the conversation and to "meet" those who share your interests--this is why carefully chosen hashtags (and the promotion thereof) are important. Mentioning (@_____) can be gratuitous (as can hashtags), but it is an important way to form alliances and associations as well. Kanter and Fine stress authenticity as a key element in using social networks.

4. Instagram

I was surprised at how many of my students seem to use Instagram (not specifically for professional reasons, but in general). I don't use Instagram on a professional level (mostly pictures of my cat and my food preparations), but that's largely because my fascinating musicological discoveries tend not to be of great visual interest, even with the "Ludwig" filter. But Instagram is a great place to post rehearsal shots or "in-process" shots for those involved in music. Early music performers can use it as a platform to demystify the instruments they play and to give audiences a "closer look." This is possible on Facebook and Twitter, but Instagram is arguably a more effective platform as it speak almost exclusively in pictures.

So, in the end, I think that social networking has become so much a part of daily life for a great many of us, that we begin to take it for granted. Performers may choose not to use networking platforms, but if they do, it is important to cultivate ways to use them that are differentiated from how we use them for personal means. On Facebook, this means lists or a dedicated page. On Twitter, this means hashtags and mentions. But as with "real life" relationships, effective professional social networking takes time, skill, and perhaps most importantly, desire to engage with audiences in this way. I don't think having an obligatory Facebook page or Twitter account is a good idea if the means and desire to maintain the network are not there. In that way, I do believe we have hit the point of saturation as far as the "innovation" of social networking. That said, just as with public speaking and writing, there are nuances and skills that performers who wish to engage with these platforms would do well to cultivate.

I must thank and acknowledge  Ed Justen (@edjusten on Twitter) for inspiring me to write this post.

(1) Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change (San Francisco: Wiley, 2010).

**Opinions expressed on this blog are solely my own and do not represent The Boston Conservatory***

Saturday, February 23, 2013

CONCERT PICKS: Blue Heron- March 2, 2013

MMM's new feature "MUSICAL PICKS" will occasionally highlight  upcoming concerts in the Boston area, particularly those connected to musicological conferences and activities.

This should be splendid! And please note that Blue Heron will also be performing on March 1st at BU as part of the conference Voice and Voicelessness in Medieval Europe and Beyond.

Press Release:

Divine Songs

Connections and exchanges between secular song and sacred music, featuring the music of Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420-1497)

Johannes Ockeghem, one of the greatest composers of all time, is completely unknown to many listeners today. His endlessly fascinating sacred music has been characterized as mystical; his songs, each one a gem of invention, can be funny, heart wrenching, or profound. The program includes French songs and sacred music based on them.

Free pre-concert talk at 7:15 by Sean Gallagher (Boston University)

Blue Heron
Scott Metcalfe, director, harp & medieval fiddle
Pamela Dellal, Paul Guttry, David McFerrin, Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, Martin Near, Mark Sprinkle and Sumner Thompson, voices
Laura Jeppesen, rebec & medieval fiddle

DATE: Saturday, March 2, 2013
TIME: 8:00 pm

First Church in Cambridge, Congregational
11 Garden St
Cambridge, MA 02138

Tickets: $50 - Section A and $40 - Section B (reserved seating), $30 - Section C (general seating)
Discounts: Seniors $25, Students/Low Income $10, Under 18 FREE


TO ORDER TICKETS ONLINE: (for print listings)

The vocal ensemble Blue Heron, directed by Scott Metcalfe, has been acclaimed by The Boston Globe as "one of the Boston music community's indispensables" and hailed by Alex Ross in The New Yorker for the "expressive intensity" of its interpretations; the Boston Musical Intelligencer calls Blue Heron "a fantastic model for the fully-realized potential of early music performance in the 21st century." Combining a commitment to vivid live performance with the study of original source materials and historical performance practices, Blue Heron ranges over a wide and fascinating repertoire.

Blue Heron's first CD, featuring music by Guillaume Du Fay, was released in 2007; its second, of music from the Peterhouse partbooks by Hugh Aston, Robert Jones, and John Mason, followed in 2010. Both discs have received international critical acclaim and the Peterhouse CD made the Billboard charts. The second volume of Blue Heron's 5-CD series Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, featuring music of Nicholas Ludford and Richard Pygott, was released in April 2012. The third in the series is due this Fall.

Founded in 1999, Blue Heron presents subscription series in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in New York City. The ensemble has appeared at the Boston Early Music Festival, New York's 92nd Street Y, The Cloisters, and Music Before 1800, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., the Pittsburgh Renaissance and Baroque Society, and Monadnock Music in New Hampshire, and with the wind band Piffaro and the viol consort Parthenia in Philadelphia. Blue Heron made its West Coast debut at Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo, California, and returned to California in 2012 for a debut at the Berkeley Early Music Festival.


"Passionate expression and dramatic attention to text...nuanced dynamic shadings and emotive conviction"
Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times | June, 2012

"Sumptuously beautiful...sung with bravura and grace"
Joshua Kosman, The San Francisco Chronicle | June, 2012

"a revelation - fresh, dynamic and vibrant...urgent and wondrous music-making of the highest order"
Damian Fowler, Gramophone | November, 2012

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reflections on Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium

I'm glad to say it was teaching that kept me from attending the first day of Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium at Northeastern University, rather than some less noble excuse. I did attend many of the events on Saturday, however, and the day concluded with an extraordinary concert by the Callithumpian Consort. I offer a few reflections here, but this is by no means an exhaustive report on all events of the symposium, nor even all the events I attended.

 Richard Toop's keynote offerings (introduced via an audio recording of Toop and then read by Rebecca Kim) on lyricism in Brown's "Centering" (1973) gave me a deep appreciation for Ethan Wood's stunning performance with the Callithumpian later that night. Volker Straebel's paper, "Interdependence of Composition and Technology in Earle Brown's Tape Compositions Octet I/II (1953/54) highlighted some important distinctions between Cage's thoughts about sound versus Brown's view of sound durations--particularly Cage's more contrapuntal approach and Brown's "sound events that may or may not overlap." Brown's remark regarding the "kaleidoscopic abstraction of the library of sounds" invites me to spend more time incorpating Brown in my Feldman seminar. One of the biggest treats of the day was hearing Straebel's realization of Octet II, as the work was never realized in Brown's lifetime. I was struck by the sonic effect of looping the source material, as opposed to Octet I. As a musical work, the looping really did provide glue, particularly for a multi-channel piece. The lack of decay, as well, made Octet II a far different listening experience than Octet I. A question from the audience remarked on the irony of Brown's skepticism toward musique concrète, but the point was made (and I think rightly so) that the goals of musique concrète were more narrative, and that the use of chance operations negotiate Brown's issues with the art form.

Another highlight of yesterday's sessions was Stephen Drury, who led members of the Callithumpian Consort in a performance of John Zorn's Cobra, an unpublished game piece reliant upon a series of cues, but spontaneous in its musical material. Zorn describes these works as "tying together loose strings left dangling by composers such as Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew, John Cage and Stockhausen...".(1) Drury provided just enough explanation of how the piece worked, but then let the work speak for itself, which seems to be largely the point. The presentation questioned conventional definitions of improvisation and composition, and Drury's abstract summarized beautifully the crux of the matter: "We learn/understand by traveling backwards through history; the recent past informs the less recent past; performers ain't what they used to be." (2) Drury mused that listening to Cobra without watching it made the experience both better and worse, and this stemmed from a question from the audience regarding the role of personality in improvised and open form works. One audience member offered that Cage strove to remove personality & performer's ego from his music, whereas Zorn seemed to thrive on it. I'm not ready to say that Cage and Zorn represent two polarities, because I think the whole "ego-less" mantra surrounding Cage's music is easily problematized, but positing Brown's open form works as a sort of "middle-ground" was intriguing. Another valuable insight stemming from this presentation was the idea that, although these game pieces can "sound like anything," they must sound good. Perhaps therein lies the real labor in performing a piece like this. Zorn's "community of players" have an aesthetic responsibility to themselves and the audience.

After this performance-demonstration, Stephen Drury conversed with Christian Wolff, which generated some interesting discussion regarding ideas of "perfection" in performance, the contemporary context for the rekindled popularity of this music, and the caveats brought about by recordings and access to previous performances of open form and improvisational works.

After lunch, Louis Pine offered a workshop on "Aspects of Earle Brown's Use of the Schillinger System of Composition" with a focus on Brown's 1992 work Tracking Pierrot. I only caught the last fifteen minutes of the workshop, but it did seem to be a worthwhile examination of Brown's pre-compositional plans and an attempt to more fully articulate the impact of Brown's study at the Schillinger House in Boston from 1945-1950. Jason Cady, of the Earle Brown Music Foundation, followed Pine's presentation with a generally helpful overview of Brown's compositional ideas and methods. I think all specialized symposia should open with a presentation of this type, inviting those less familiar with the subject to be more engaged. Particularly since one of the goals of these events is musical advocacy, expanding the conversation toward those outside of the niche should be a consideration.

It was Frederick Gifford's paper, "Imagining an Ever-Changing Entity: Compositional Process in Earle Brown's Cross Sections and Color Fields," that I found most engaging from the perspective of sketch and manuscript studies. In a beautifully organized presentation, drawn from an exhaustive examination of the sketches, Gifford proposed a five-step compositional process that perhaps most importantly put Brown's thoughts about open form as a later step, if not the last.

I did not attend the last session, but returned for the fantastic concert by the Callithumpian Consort, which beautifully contextualized Brown's "Corroboree" (1964), "Centering" (1973), "Available Forms I" (1961) and "Sign Sounds" (1972), in reference to two works not by Brown: Boulez's "Constellation-Miroir" (1957) and Zorn's "For Your Eyes Only" (1989). Steffen Schleiermacher was the guest soloist for the Boulez, and beautifully rendered the composer's materials. In his program note on the work, Richard Toop remarked on the irony in performing this work as part of this symposium: "Sure, it represents Boulez's work at precisely the point where he started to advocate Brown's music. Yet in other respects it seems to represent the opposite of Brown's pragmatism. In Cage's Notations, Brown writes: 'Good notation is what works.' But apropos Constellation-Miroir, Boulez might rather have written: 'Good notation is what mythologises'." (3) All the performances of the night were inspired and visionary, but Ethan Wood's performance in "Centering" was particularly profound, embodying the "otherworldly" aspect that ends the piece with a quotation of Maderna's first oboe concerto.

Bravo to the organizers and participants for such a wonderful symposium.

(1) John Zorn, "The Game Pieces" in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, eds. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2009), 196.

(2) Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium, program, 18.
(3) Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium, program, 27.

(Cross-posted at the AMS-NE Blog)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

PowerPoint Presentations: Proceed with Caution

There may seem like no drier topic than writing about PowerPoint, but I think it is an issue worthy of conversation, particularly in how it is used in academic settings. I've seen PP presentations improve over the last few years, but occasionally I still encounter the PP presentation that tries to compete with a Broadway show (rather than support the speaker), or falls flat out of some sense that PP slides are an obligation.

 I heard many wonderful papers at the Fall meeting of the New England Chapter of the American Musicological Society yesterday.* I was particularly struck, however, by Dan DiCenso's paper, "More Roman than "Gregorian," More Frankish than "Old Roman": What a Newly Rediscovered Italian Source Reveals about the Roman and Frankish Character of Chant Transmission in the Mid-Ninth Century." The presentation was not only full of intriguing content, but was an exemplary use of PowerPoint. Dan's presentation was also a good model for engaging a mixed audience on a topic that may be relatively foreign to a large group within the audience. He included comparative tables which clearly illustrated the various relationships between the Monza manuscript and the Sárospatak fragment, as well as other Old Roman sources. There was no need to be well-versed in medieval manuscripts, as Dan presented his information as clearly-defined visual data. Thoughtful use of circles and arrows highlighted particular elements of a slide as he spoke.

I used to teach at a place that had fully wired classrooms, so I made use of the technology and encouraged the students to do so as well.  When a group engaged PowerPoint slides for their projects,  this was a learning experience for all parties involved. There are two major errors I see in PP presentations: The Gratuitous PowerPoint and The Overwrought PowerPoint. I will define each, and indicate the pitfalls of both types.

The Gratuitous PowerPoint: This is the PP presentation filled with photographs, special fonts, fancy formatting, and all sorts of bells and whistles that offer little more than entertainment value. This is often motivated by a lack of substance in the actual presentation.

  • Visual input can detract from aural input (for more on this, I recommend reading Rich Mayer's ideas regarding cognitive loads in Multi-Media Learning)
  •  The opportunity for students to grasp the outline form of a presentation might be impeded by various kinds of visual miscellanea
  • Forced PowerPoint presentations can lead to sloppy work (I remember well a presentation on composer Roger Sessions which began with a slide of software architect Roger Sessions, simply because he was the first result in a Google Image search).
The Overwrought PowerPoint:  Similar to the Gratuitous PP (but often stemming from different motivation) this is the PP that tries too hard and probably includes too much information.

  • There is so much information included on the slide, that the viewer is either distracted by the presenter, or the two cancel each other out. Students often feel it necessary to copy everything down off the slides.
  • Highlighting everything can corrupt the structure of a presentation, as well as allowing viewers to hone in on the emphatic points of the presentation.
  • Often there is little else left to be said, so the slides become a transcript of the presentation.

There are certainly more pitfalls, but I'd rather focus on what I like to see in a PP presentation, and how I do think they can be beneficial--both in terms of the process of making a presentation and in terms of the impact on an audience.

  • The student is forced to draw out the cogent and important main points from their topic
  • The student can decide what needs visual illustration and what does not
  • The student gets experience giving a presentation accompanied by visual media
  • Helps engage the student with different modes of learning
  • opportunities to put faces to names (particularly helpful in the classroom)
  • musical examples (CAVEAT: full pages of score with tiny annotations are better viewed on a handout--especially in a large conference setting).
  • simple animations to highlight events in score examples
  •  in-slide audio examples
  • can help reinforce reading of lengthier quotations (as long as they are read aloud with the presentation of the slide).
  • using charts, tables, and graphs to represent comparisons, historical trends, etc. Again, this can engage multiple modes of learning by re-framing something with non-traditional illustrations. For example, a melody might be expressed as a graph of pitches (y-axis) in time (x-axis) to effectively demonstrate the concept of "melodic contour" in a music appreciation course.

So, PowerPoint presentations can become a crutch if used incorrectly. The general rule I give my students is: PowerPoint should enhance your presentation, but if the technology fails, your presentation should still be engaging and informative. This encourages both backups (CDs of musical examples) and a sense of responsibility regarding what is presented off-slide.

What are your PowerPoint tips? Pet peeves?


*All the slide presentations at this meeting were fine to great, according to the criteria I propose here.


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea